When we were kids, my younger sister and I would set up a desk and play school. I was always the teacher. I’d spend hours preparing lessons, modeled after whatever I was learning in fifth grade, and try to get someone four years younger than me to pay attention and follow my meticulously ordered plans. I don’t remember exactly what I’d try to teach her, but I remember colored pens and a ruler to create beautiful lined assignment handouts. I remember scheduling intervals for each lesson, and by the time we got through a few and moved onto recess, I’d be thinking about sticking to the plan for the rest of the day and my sister would be losing interest and tell me I was bossy and refuse to continue. I’d file my beautiful plans away to use the next time—there was always a next time, despite my sister’s impatience. Sometimes a friend of hers would join. There were plenty of girls my sister’s age in our neighborhood, and fewer my age, and I felt confident and in charge when I could create a plan and stick to it, and even better hold other people to my standards.
For the longest time as a young girl, I wanted to be a teacher. Those early days of playing school appealed to my organized sensibilities, creating structure and teaching things that very clearly had a right or wrong answer. I had many great teachers growing up, and a few bad ones, and I looked up to them as these mysterious keepers of knowledge and truth. My extended family were all teachers or administrators. I remember helping one of my aunts in her fourth-grade classroom and saw my small-scale impressions of being a teacher turn into reality, writ large. I, too, could be all-knowing and looked up to and revered if I became a teacher.
At some point, though, for reasons I can’t explain but that happen to all of us as the answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” changes over time as our world view expands. I don’t recall a moment of epiphany, that teaching isn’t all colored pens and construction paper, so perhaps it was more a slow pivot away from teaching and towards… what? I knew I loved science and loved writing and explored the lab (talk about appealing to my logical side). But nothing was as clear to me as a defined career as “teacher.” (Let the record show: I am very glad I’m not a teacher. This is not a story of regret.)
We go around asking each other about our careers all the time. It’s the ultimate small talk question: “What do you do?” Our culture emphasizes these roles as part of our capitalist machine: career implies a place in society, a person whose role in production and output fits into a tidy little noun. Teacher, doctor, entrepreneur, investor, custodian, writer, scientist, economist, politician.
It’s hard to disconnect our worth as members of American society with our worth as human beings. I have a hard time if I’m not doing something productive, something that will roll up into a definition like “writer” or “administrator.” The guilt that comes with eschewing those labels is real, and for what? Going through a period of uncertainty with what I wanted to do once I left the lab, seeing the worth of a partner despite him not having a job, and realizing my job doesn’t check all my boxes for a fulfilling way to spend time (and realizing that maybe it doesn’t have to) has taught me that the concept of a “career” is a strange way to define a person.
I’d much rather know what you’re passionate about, what you look forward to doing, what you’d do for free. Maybe that’s the job that makes you money, maybe that’s the thing you do outside the job whose money allows you to explore it. Maybe you’re a truly awful musician but it’s the thing that make you alive. Tell me about that. Define yourself by that.
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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